“daydream believer” – the monkees (1967)

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For the last six months or so, I’ve been taken guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. Growing up, I loved listening to music, reading about music, and talking about music. However, I couldn’t play music. I never really took to a musical instrument growing up. It would make sense to assume I knew how to play at least one instrument, but that was not the case.

In early 2014, I changed jobs from one where I had absolutely no free time to a job that had normal hours and provided me with adequate leisure time. I realized something after that transition. I did not have any hobbies that I enjoyed doing. For nearly three years, I was working 60-70 hours a week and was so exhausted in my off time that I didn’t take time for myself. Ultimately, this was quite alarming for me.

After some time, I decided that I wanted to learn an instrument. Though, I didn’t know what I wanted to learn. Immediately, I blew off the notion of learning guitar simply because that is everyone’s first instrument. I wanted to be different and learn something more esoteric just because it would be different. I couldn’t afford classes yet, so I promised myself I would have my mind made up by the time I saved up enough to take a course. Classes at Old Town are nearly $200 for an 8-week course. My new job didn’t pay as well, so I was intimidated about spending so much money on something for fear I would just give up on it. I’m a practical and pragmatic person, but I wasn’t sure if I could be committed to something enough to want to spend that much money unless it was a sure bet. I personally felt that I wouldn’t learn how to play anything all that well, would become frustrated by my inability to get better, and just give up However, I set that goal to have the money saved up and at least try out one course.

Things changed a lot that summer and I had to postpone taking classes. Within one week, my job’s Chicago office laid the entire staff off and I moved out of my girlfriend’s place after we broke up. I’m a very responsible person and take measures to make sure I can take care of myself. Expenditures like guitar classes would have to wait while I focused on finding work and taking low-paying temp assignments for the foreseeable future.

When one of my temp jobs became a permanent position when the company hired me, the idea of taking classes resurfaced. However, I still couldn’t justify spending so much money for something I doubted I would be any good at. Due to the fact my recent temp assignments didn’t pay all that well, I had to focus on saving money. I was talking to a friend of mine about learning an instrument and they told me that volunteers at Old Town could take classes. I used to work so much with no time to focus on other things I was passionate about. My new job had normal hours. I like staying busy and with all this new free time, I could somehow make that time work for me. I looked into it and set an appointment to attend a volunteer orientation. The idea was that I could volunteer to not only build up my resume, but also help me reconcile with the money issue but working towards a class using volunteer discounts.

I’ve been volunteering at Old Town for nearly a year. Since I started, I’ve been working every week in their resource center; a vast collection of twenty-thousand records, CDs, and books. I was surrounded by music and could play anything I wanted. And after seven weeks, I could earn the maximum discount. This worked well because I could earn that discount by the time the course finished it’s eight week run. Volunteering meant I would be working towards something instead of just flippantly spending money. This made me appreciate things and wanted to learn an instrument even more because I had put more effort into things. It felt like something I earned rather than something I bought.

Despite my early bias, I ended up picking guitar as my first instrument. After all, there is a reason why it is nearly everyone’s first instrument, right? Last night, I participated in the student showcase on behalf of the Guitar II course; the third course in Old Town’s guitar program following Guitar I and Guitar 1 Repertoire. In these class, we strengthened our work on riffs carried over from lesson in Guitar 1 Repertoire as well as becoming introduced to the capo and alternate bass strumming (think Johnny Cash’s playing style). For the showcase, we chose to either play “Country Roads” by John Denver to show off our alternate bass skills, or “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees because of it’s riff and two different Bm chord styles. The class picked “Daydream Believer.”

When I was in high school, I loved listening to the Monkees. My mother burned me a copy of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. that I listened to repeatedly. I knew they had a reputation of being a silly, TV band. I didn’t care. I was impressed with their cartoonish charm. When I went to college, they fell off my radar. These things happen. Though when we started to practice the song in class, I began to appreciate the music again. Before, I was the casual listener. The harmonies, psychedelic riffs, and rock rhythms were all I needed and it was fine because I was really listening. Now fifteen years later, things were different. I knew the songs. I couldn’t forget them because I could replay them in my head. But now, with the chord sheet in front of me, it was like I was experiencing the song for the first time again.

Davy Jones leads the vocals on “Daydream Believer,” but I wouldn’t dare sing it. I don’t fancy myself a good singer and either way, I was there to learn guitar. The horns that make up the riff between the verse and chorus on the track had been translated to individually picking G and B strings with specific fret placement. Even the lyrics changed for me. I think you tend to understand more of something when you play it yourself than when someone is doing it for you. What always sounded like a lilting, fluffy love song to me before carried more poetry when I was learning the song’s moving parts as if each word had a specific purpose or weight. Whenever I listened to a musician talk about learning a song and breaking down it’s parts, I finally understood now.

I often joke about how terrible I am at the guitar after a couple of classes. The truth is, I’m not that bad. I am where I should be. I’m still a beginner but I’ve made a lot of noticeable improvement since I first started. Playing the song was an incredibly fun experience. We performed on Old Town’s main stage that has hosted several decades of amazing talent including Patti Smith, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Steve Martin, Pete Seeger, and so many more. I had walked on the stage before, but not like this. I wasn’t nervous (which is rare for me). I was completely relaxed and in sync with the song in the same way I listened to it as a kid with my eyes closed on the school bus or on my bed.

I’m eager to see what the rest of the program has in store for me. I wish I had learned to play earlier, but part of me is glad I didn’t. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for the challenge. Perhaps I needed to get comfortable with things. A lot had disruptions had entered my life and I had to set my priorities. Things are great and I’m happy with the direction I’m going. I’m busy a lot and don’t get a lot of alone time, so it does get exhausting. However, I have to get it where I can because something can always come up and put a halt to your plans. Life happens. Until then, I’ll just be monkeying around and too busy singing to put anybody down.

 

“rock hard” – beastie boys (1985)

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The Internet has been both a blessing and a curse for musicians. Digital piracy has been a problem plaguing the industry and affecting the income for artists for over two decades. While that is a serious problem, some of the blame can be placed on the major labels for putting out inferior products and ignoring the myriad of styles and sounds that can be found online. Our technology has become increasingly sophisticated and the powers that be have yet to catch up to it. I remember being in college ten years ago and having to find time to go to the library to go online and research things. Now, I can reach for my pocket oracle and find out the answer to every question that pops in my head.

Being the great equalizer that it is, the Internet has become a great venue for even the most obscure musicians. Not long ago, if an aspiring musician wanted to share their latest demo or mix tape then they had to make the time to hit the streets and record store. Now, you can upload everything to the cloud and share a link on your social media feed. I find that so fascinating and, frankly, time and cost effective. More people have more time and more access to the tools needed to find their voice and deliver it to the masses. However, like the Metro on a Saturday night, the Internet is becoming more crowded. More people are clamoring for what little attention is available. So, it becomes imperative for an artist to make a big and lasting statement.

I like big inaugural statements in music. The energy and passion behind them is incredibly powerful. When a band puts out their first album, I like it to be ambitious as if they’ll never get this chance again. And before the Internet age, it was much harder to buy yourself a redo. It has become easier to go back to the drawing board with minimal loss of time and resources.

Recently I was talking to a friend about the great debut albums; the big opening statement that builds the foundation for an artist’s potential legacy. Most artists get to that point by their second, third, or even fourth studio album. A few artists might take years to achieve that goal. However, very few artists land it the first time. A few albums came up. Appetite for Destruction. Led Zeppelin I. Ten. Horses. All great albums that I love.

In 1986, Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys dropped and forever changed the landscape of pop music. Before they would become known as pioneers of fresh, genre-bending beats, they had the reputation of being nothing more than drunken frat boys. Their lyrics were misogynistic and violent, and their stage presence was beer-soaked and chaotic. This would be something the band would change by 1989 with their masterpiece Paul’s Boutique. But until then, it was all about the brass monkey.

I truly love the Beastie Boys. Though not every album was a stroke of pure genius, I do not feel as though they ever released a bad album. While Licensed to Ill was certainly not their best album, it is holds up well and deserves a place in the pantheon of great debut albums.

Before 1986, the Beastie Boys released a few singles, EPs, and even contributed to a motion picture soundtrack. During this time, they were transitioning from a punk rock band to a hip-hop group. Even at beginning of their career, they were experimenting with taking different forms and creating something truly unique. This was a time before Pro Tools and computer sampling. Everything was done using analog. Your heart had to be all the way into it, or it wasn’t in it all.

“Rock Hard,” a single released in 1985, is a declaration of war on wax. Sampling AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” looping in a drum beat, and vocalizing their badassery, the Beastie Boys came in loud and ready to shake things up. Reminiscent of Run-D.M.C.’s single “King of Rock” which came out the same year, “Rock Hard” features booming percussion, clever use of the sample’s guitar licks, and tight rhymes. Ad Rock, MCA, and Mike D take turns on the mic and with their signature tough Brooklyn attitudes, command respect. The new kings or rock have arrived and you better kneel, or else you’ll get a boot in your ass.

“Rock Hard” is not the band’s best single, but it is one of their most overlooked. When compiling the compilation album The Sounds of Science in 1999, the band couldn’t get clearance from AC/DC to include the single. Members from AC/DC stated that they didn’t endorse sampling. The Beastie Boys retorted that they didn’t endorse people playing guitars. After 15 years of solid gold hits, the band still had the same ferocity towards authorities that challenged their art. These were three guys who worked hard to stake their claim, and no one was going to take that away from them. Perhaps if they came about at a later time when hip-hop became easier to make, their punk rock attitude wouldn’t be as fierce.

“down in the park” – tubeway army (1979)

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Dystopias in art are really interesting to me. Especially when they are set in the near future with familiar elements that exist in the here and now. From video games set in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland to 1970s sci-fi films with teenage gangs wreaking havoc within a British police state, these stories dance on the line between frightening and alluring. They are cautionary tales that exaggerate the worst aspects of humanity to make a point about modern day society. Yet, they are strangely attractive almost as to suggest such a drastic change to our current way of life would be exciting. Though, I hardly believe if any of these scenarios became reality that they would be as romantic as our entertainment media can sometimes make them out to be.

Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan, was a post-punk and new wave band formed during the 1970s. Originally rooted in punk music on their first studio release, the band would take a sharp turn towards electronica with the 1979 release of Replicants, their second and final studio album. A loose concept album, Replicants is about a world cohabited by men and machines; a transhumanist dystopian anti-reality seething with raw sexuality and perversion. The androids appear as androgynous beings that force their will on humans for entertainment.

I was aware of Numan at an early age. Around the turn of the millennium, VH1 featured a lot of nostalgia programming; various countdowns and decade retrospectives. One particular program counted down the best one-hit wonders of all time. Numan’s single “Cars” appeared on that list. I really like that song, but that was it. Knowing that Numan was a one-hit wonder, I didn’t think that he could have any other good songs. Being that I was 12 or 13 at the time and without blazing fast internet speeds combined with an elementary knowledge of pop music, I didn’t really have the motivation or interest to explore Numan’s synthetic world of electric nightmares.

I spent my high school years in a small rural farming community. There weren’t any convenient record shops nearby and commercial radio during the mid-2000s was excruciatingly dull. I consumed all of the TV shows and magazines that glorified artists of the past. Some of which I would never hear on commercial radio. That all would change when I got to college. Technology had progressed to bring people where they needed to go much faster and streaming media was in it’s infant stage. I was in college radio at the time and I wanted more music. My hunger was insatiable. Spending time with other music lovers, I tried to absorb as much as possible. And with the rise of social media, share as much as possible as well.

During my junior year of college, I purchased a boxset by the Police called Message in a Box during a Black Friday sale online. It was a 4-disc collection claiming it contained every commercially released recording (though I would find out later it is missing a few tracks), including studio albums and rarities. A couple of the rarities were live cuts from the concert film Urgh! A Music War. I did my research online and learned it was considered one of the best concert films of all time (always hard to take such claims seriously) and featured a wide array of post-punk and new wave music. I was really into soul music and spent a lot of time in that world for my college radio show, but I like the Police. And if the Police were good enough for this film, then the other artists had to be great.

I learned Urgh! A Music War was not an easy film to find. I had to acquire a bootleg copy online if I was going to watch it. When it finally finished downloading, I watched performance after performance featuring the likes of the Cramps, XTC, and the Go-Gos. While the film featured three dozen brilliant performances, a few stuck out in my head. One in particular was Numan performing “Down in the Park,” a single off of Tubeway Army’s Replicants album

The music was dark and brooding, but featured a lilting synth-pop rhythm that added a sardonic tone. During the performance, Numan was driving around the stage in a black motorized cart while he sang. It look liked something a paraplegic would drive in battle against a robot army. I was stunned by Numan’s presence as a live artist. He was a storyteller with a showman flair for the darkest fringe of society.

Released in 1979, “Down in the Park” is set during a futuristic dystopia where the interactions between humans and androids can be violent and deadly. In this world, machines attack and rape bystanders for entertainment. They state that they are not lovers and not romantics, but they are they are there to serve the will of their robotic friends and masters. Adding life to this story, the synth-pop backing track creates a dark and hypnotic presence that makes the listener engulfed in a deep feeling of paranoia as if they could be attacked next. The harmony is broken up by interludes of Moog synthesizers that heighten the sensation that any calm being felt is only temporary.

I cannot say that I am a big fan of Numan, but I do enjoy aspects of his work. A few years ago, I did see him perform live on JBTV in Chicago. Standing only a few feet away, he performed a five song set from his latest album to promote a show he was doing at the Metro. He had an incredible stage presence and moved very chaotically at his age. This was a far departure from the stoic and androgynous robotic figure I had seen in Urgh! A Music War. Numan is an underrated artist who can present a particular image and idea. And he is incredibly exciting for that. I just hope I’m never down in the park he sings about.

“tales of taboo” – karen finley (1986)

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Art is such a subjective concept, but I wonder about the process and it’s effect. Artists create in order to share a part of themselves with the rest of the world. Their experiences, personal feelings, or what their eyes perceive motivate them to put paint to canvas, ink to paper, or life to celluloid. Creating art becomes a cathartic form of communication for someone who cannot speak their truth any other way.

Someone I went to college with has become quite an accomplished poet. He has been published in several collections, both online and in print. He has even self-published some collections. I’m not an expert on poetry. I have some poets I enjoy. I do not know enough to know if his work can be considered good, but I’m happy for what he has achieved.

This poet came under fire lately within the poetry community. He drew inspiration from a famous work by Allen Ginsberg and adapted it to fit his vision of social media. He had a lot to say about social media and how it influences our society; his own unique viewpoint on how humans engage and react with each other. I read it. The stark language and imagery the poem evoked certainly wasn’t what you call family friendly, but this poem wasn’t meant for that kind of audience. I cannot say the poem particularly moved me, but I like to take an interest in the goings on of the people in my social media feed sometimes. It makes me feel good to see people express themselves on their own terms.

However, the poetry did more than move a few people. It made them seething with rage and demand that this rogue poet be banned from any and all publications and if anyone did publish his work, they should be shamed and face retribution for doing so. The comments on social media and blogging sites were shocking to read. Such ferociousness. Such anger. Such malice. The reactions his work evoked certainly disturbed me more than any poem.

Many of these vehement critics declared this poet’s work did not qualify as art. The reasoning behind this involved their own subjective construct of what art is and should be. Specifically, the criticism suggested that any work that made marginalized minorities feel threatened or uncomfortable should be considered hate speech and not art. While I did not get that kind of message from his work, I am admittedly not a part of a marginalized demographic.

All of this had me thinking about the concept of art and what defines it. Personally, I generally think anything created that does not physically harm another person is art. I also do not believe art can motivate a sane person to behave psychotically. So, I wonder why people are motivated to silence artists. Whether it be the PMRC silencing Prince or Twitter users silencing an amateur poet, why do people use their own subjectivity to silence the subjectivity of others? Whenever I see something I don’t like on television, I change the channel.

I mentioned earlier that art is subjective. That is an absolute truth. However, I believe that the general public’s reaction to art be objective in the sense that we must not do anything to silence one another. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, but we should tolerate it. These critics of the aforementioned poet have their own viewpoints on life and that’s fine. They have their own moral code and a framework for them to make judgments. But those judgments shouldn’t infringe on the rights and expression of another artist. I doubt many of these critics would enjoy a fanatical religious zealot silencing them for their way of life that they deem acceptable.

Thinking about this made me remember Karen Finley. Finley was a shocking performance artist from the Chicago area who notoriously was one of four artists to have their National Endowment for the Arts grant funding taken away. Finley produced music and performed stage acts that involved a lot of pervasive sexual imagery and language. Much of her prose contained violent and sexual themes including rape and incest. All of which is set to driving synth-pop music that sounds darkly melodic and exudes sexual conquest. “Tales of Taboo” is a prime example of this.

It is fair to say that Finley is an acquired taste. I personally enjoy some of her work, but I’m not necessarily the biggest fan. Her work suffered as a result of someone else’s definition of art and believed Finley’s work violated their moral compass. Artists need monetary compensation to thrive and continue their work. In Finley’s case, the gatekeepers were those with the authority to pull her funding because that is where their power comes from. For an amateur poet looking to make a small noise in the inky blackness that is the internet, that compensation comes in the forms of shares and likes. The gatekeepers in his community wield their power in 144 characters or less and website blackouts.

Finley would go on to have modest success throughout her career as a fringe artist. I admire her attitude and ability to stay true to herself despite her opposition. I don’t consider myself an artist, but if I had any advice for those who are then it would be to stay true to form. With technology being so cheap and readily available, people are creating more and more. We all have a voice we want to share. With so much competition for so few rewards, it takes a lot of time and effort to get the attention an artist needs. So, why waste time bringing others down when you can bring yourself up? You have the power to control your own destiny. Don’t waste it on others.